Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Killer

What About It?

The Killer is first and foremost an action film and was John Woo's effort that brought him to the attention of Hollywood. Although it's clear watching the film that it was shot on a limited budget, what's astounding is the style that Woo produced despite that. While there are countless scenes of people getting shot, Woo doesn't seem overly concerned with the gore element as much as the motion. With carefully choreographed movements, slow motion, and focus to particular detail, the gunfight seems like a kind of dance. Several scenes feature one or two men holding of an army. He isn't always concerned with realism, celebrating the ability of cinema to exaggerate and take a scene over the top, but he doesn't ignore it either. Ah Jong may kill twenty people more easily than you can believe, but he doesn't get off without a scratch. We watch as bullets are pulled from his back, and gunpowder is lit in an injury. We see Fung Sei, despite his useless hand take out a room full of thugs and escape with a briefcase full of money, but his victory is short lived as he'll be gunned down in a few minutes. The flying bullets are accented by doves, a recognized symbol of peace, flying around in the midst of it all. Watching Ah Jong with  a gun in each hand sliding across the floor on his back, we know this isn't a conventional gunfight. It's also easy to see how so many films were influenced by Woo's style. "The Matrix" for example, owes as much to John Woo as it does to George Lucas. Of course "The Killer" itself was not created in a vacuum. Woo credits Melville's classic hit man film "Le Samourai" and Scorsese's "Mean Streets" as direct influences, and you can certainly see them all through the work.

The victor in these scenes seems to be determined by force of will more than anything else, but even that has it's limitations.  In many cases, people simply refuse to be stopped until they've fulfilled their mission. Fung Sei can be killed once he's fulfilled his promise and delivered Ah Jong his money, Ah Jong can be killed, once he's satisfied that Jenny will be taken care of. Wong can be killed once he's fully illustrated that neither Ah Jong or Li Ying have a place in the contemporary police force/ triad organization.

Using talented actors and meticulous attention to detail, Woo transcends limitations and delivers an overwhelming movie watching experience. Chow Yun Fat gives us a believable character who can without hesitation open fire in a restaurant and in the next scene struggle to repair the damage he's caused an innocent.It's quite a trick to make a cold blooded killer who is as likely to be compassionate as he is to kill, but he easily pulls it off. He also sells the action well, looking formidable in every battle. Danny Lee presents Li Ying as a determined cop, very competent but ill equipped for politics. Where Chow Yun Fat comes off as graceful, Danny Lee appears effective by virtue of tenacity and willingness to charge straight ahead. They work very with and against each other. Sally Yeh gives a good performance although her character is at times almost unbelievably simple. Her best moment is figuring out that she's blind using the candles, but not saying anything about it. Kenneth Tsang also presents a compelling character although he has little screen time.

These characters are defined as much by visual cues as by what they say. Ah Jong is a hit man who feels most at home in a church. A short slow motion sequence as he walks with his hat, scarf and coat on, give us the idea that he can flow somewhere as much as walk. His every movement is calculated and as Li Ying points out, his "every shot takes a life." In contrast with the scores of other triad killers here, Ah Jong is a loner. He doesn't go to triad meetings, but has one point of contact. This is not a dime a dozen killer, but a specialized one, guaranteed to get results and disappear. But, as with many hit man films, the killer is tired of the lifestyle. He tells Jenny late in the film that he had once assumed he would only kill bad guys, "but it isn't that easy." In case we doubt this fact, we have it illustrated. Ah Jong attempts to help two innocents caught up in the results of his lifestyle, the little girl, and Jenny. Each contract he takes in the movie has a civilian casualty cost, and he clearly isn't okay with that. This is not really the job he signed up for. In conversations with Li Ying, he mentions that in his profession there are rules, such as not shooting someone in the back, but those rules now only exist in his head, as the triad presented here runs almost entirely on betrayal. Both of his assigned hits are relatives of Wong Hoi, who has them removed as if they were minor obstacles.

As the head of the organization, Wong Hoi is a symbol of it's current state and values. This is also true of Li Ying's police chief, who is only interested in the appearance of the department and his own prospects for promotion. Li Ying is as bad a fit in the department as Ah Jong is in the triads. Both are men looking to serve an ideal that perhaps doesn't even exist in reality. It could even be said that both are really interested in Justice, Yi Ling says as much for himself. Ah Jong's imagined scenario where he kills only bad people aims for the same goal, except that he knows by now it's impossible. Neither character can hope for justice anymore. They've arrived at the point where they have to settle for the closest thing they can accomplish now. When Ah Jong realizes what "the right thing" to do is, he knows it will most likely be fatal and accepts that even suggesting that Li Ying arrange to have Jenny get his eyes. Of course that doesn't quite work out. His eyes are shot out, as if to say "You can't be a killer your whole life, and then expect the reward you want for being good."  He had a back up plan as well, but that's also in question. Can Li Ying make sure Jenny gets the money and catches a plane while he's under arrest? It's doubtful. But, Li Ying couldn't allow Wong Hoi to live. In this action he realize that he does have more in common with Ah Jong than he first thought. He had to kill the bad man and become the  executioner just as Ah Jong had done.

Initially we're presented with Ah Jong and Li Ying as two sides of a coin, destined adversaries. But the story blurs their initial roles, Li Ying is disgusted with the police force and seeks only to avenge his partner, while Ah Jong must avenge the actions taken against himself leading them both to Wong Hoi. Neither of their chosen professions are challenged by shooting at roomfuls of men who are shooting at them, and both want to see Jenny safe and getting her operation. Yet their strongest common bond is that neither fits in the role they've chosen any longer. Both of them know this and as a result are loners by nature. Each one of them has a trusted friend who is killed, quite possibly leaving them with only each other for friendship. Fung Sei tells Ah Jong at one point "When the time comes to die, I don't want to leave without even one friend." This is a wish which likely makes a lot of sense to both Li Ying and Ah Jong, as they are very close to that point.

Ah Jong tells Li Ying "Funny that the only one who understands me would be a cop." The wish to be understood is there for both, as understanding would help them mean something and perhaps give their quests to achieve impossible ideals a little meaning. "Loyalty" after all, is a part of the code that each adheres to but is ignored by both of their employers. They do achieve this, although very briefly. In the short span of time they know each other, they form a strong friendship, which may be the most unlikely thing they could hope for. It is a hopeful note though, proving that while their values are rare, they are not quite extinct. "Show me how to retrace my steps" Ah Jong tells Li Ying, certainly a thought that many have had, but only spoken in the moments when it hurts that it can't be done.

What Happens?

The film opens on a church with stained glass windows and many candle lit inside. Ah Jong (Chow Yun Fat) watches a statue of the Madonna, while waiting for an associate, Fung Sei (Chu Kong.) Fung Sei arrives and asks Ah Jong "Do you believe in all this?" Ah Jong replies "I like it because it's quiet in here." Fung Sei hands him a briefcase containing money, documentation, a photo of a man, and a number of pistols. Fung Sei asks if he'd like to examine the guns, but Ah Jong assures him "I trust you."

Ah Jong heads to a night club where he's fascinated by a woman, Jennie (Sally Yeh) singing. AH Jong soon finds the man from the briefcase photo at a table. He starts shooting the mans entourage, and kills his target. The rest of the targets men come after Ah Jong. Jennie wanders into the shootout. Ah Jong throws her to the ground to keep her safe, but when he fires at an attacker with his gun in front of Jennie's face, her eyes are badly injured. He stops her from flailing around hysterically and wraps his scarf over her eyes and heads back to the church where he has some bullets he caught in his back painfully removed with Fung Sei's help.

Jenny is at the hospital, where doctor's tell her her corneas have been damaged but there's a possibility she can have them replaced. Jenny is of course panicked "Will I go blind?" she demands, but doesn't get a real answer. Police Officers are present with her. They ask if she can identify the killer. She sees a clear image of him in her mind, but tells them she's scared.

Later, we see Ah Jong visiting the nightclub to watch Jenny, who continues to sing, despite her injury.  After the club closes, he observes some young men assault her and he fights them off and offers to drive Jennie home. Due to her sight problem, she doesn't recognize Ah Jong. He tells her that he watches her sing every night. Sill upset by the attack, he reassures her "Not everyone in the world is a bad person." He sees her into her apartment and they hear a noise. He finds it's only a cat that's come in the window. Jenny tells him that the cat always comes in and tears her clothes. He discovers that she can see enough to know when a light is turned off, but her condition is getting worse. They start spending time together regularly.

We then meet Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) preparing for an undercover assignment to arrest some people selling weapons. His partner tells him "You're too earnest." and encourages him to smile so he doesn't look so much like a cop. The deal goes badly when a uniformed officer happens on the site of the buy. Li Ying's partner and most of the weapons dealers are killed in the resulting shoot out. Li Ying has to chase the last one through the streets. He follows him onto a bus where he takes a hostage. Li Ying shoots the man, but a woman standing nearby drops to the ground, as unknown to Li Ying, she has a heart condition and the fright killed her. Li Ying is scolded at the station for recklessness. He explains that he had no other choice, but his superiors aren't interested in his explanation.

Fung Sei stops in to see Ah Jong. He throws Fung Sei a beer can which he's unable to catch. Ah Jong remarks that he thought his hand would've healed by now, but Fung Sei explains that "It's hopeless." and adds "A shooter without two hands is like a cripple." He gives Ah Jong a picture, and Ah Jong asks for 1.5 million HK, and says "after this, you'll never see me again." He provides AH Jong with some untraceable guns. Inspecting them Ah Jong says "Easy to pick up, hard to put down." Fung Sei asks "Why did you agree to do it again?" We see Ah Jong remembering visits to the doctor with Jennie, and learning that she will need a transplant very soon and the Hong Kong cornea bank is out of stock, leaving them to look overseas. We see him telling Jenny, the two of them now very close, that he'll be going away for a bit and then they'll go to America for the transplant.

At the Police Station, Inspector Li Ying is assigned to the "Dragon Boat Festival" to protect the same person who Ah Jong has agreed to kill. "Even this scum needs ou protection." Li Ying's new partner remarks. We then see a waterfront event with lots of people rowing long boats. Dung-Yu Wong, the target,  shows up to make a speech for the event. We see Ah Jong in a motorboat, disguised with a mustache, off shore with a long range rifle. He sights his target while concealed by big ships. Ah Jong shoots the man several times, killing him. Li Ying and other officers grab another boat and pursue him to a beach a short distance away However, many other gunmen are waiting for Ah Jong to ambush and kill him. In their shoot out, Ah Jong kills many of them, but a young girl is badly injured. Ah Jong picks her up and escapes to get her to the hospital. This action fascinates Li Ying who arrives in the middle of the shooting. Li Ying points his gun at Ah Jong, who fires around him to keep him back but doesn't wound him as he escapes.

Li Ying follows, knowing that Ah Jong will head to the nearest hospital. He rushes the girl to the emergency room and the doctors start working right away. Li Ying corners him in the surgery room, but Ah Jong puts a gun on his partner's head and tells Li Ying. "Don't bother the doctors."  Li Ying agrees, puts down his gun and waits. When Ah Jong notices the girl responding he makes his escape, losing the cops by firing his gun in the hospital to start a panic in the halls.

At the police station, Li Ying is encouraged by his chief to make the most of the opportunity to catch the killer, as it could help both of their careers. Li Ying has a sketch drawn up of Ah Jong's description. He tells the sketch artist "He's a bit different than your average murderer. He's very calm, quite intelligent. His eyes are very alert, full of compassion, full of passion." They discover the nightclub shooting with the unknown killer, and Li Ying asks about the singer who was injured. Based on the incident with the injured girl, Li Ying reasons that if it was Ah Jong who injured the singer, he'll still be in touch with her.

Ah Jong meanwhile is remembering the little girl's injury. He calls Fung Sei and tells him he needs the money tonight. He seems surprised that he doesn't have it already. Fung Sei goes to see the triad boss Wong Hoi (Fui-On Shing) and tells him he should've let him handle Ah Jong rather than sending men to kill him. Wong asks "What if he reveals my identity?" Fung Sei assures him that he wouldn't. Wong declares that he trusts no one. Wong demands that Fung Sei kill Ah Jong, since his identity is exposed.

We see Jenny at the nightclub. Li Ying stops in and meets her. He asks her to play a song again and she tells him "I only play it for one person."  We see Ah Jong at his apartment waiting for Fung Sei. On alert, he puts a gun to Fung Sei's head at his door.  Fung Sei remarks "In our line of work it is difficult to trust even a friend." Ah Jong asks how the triad men knew where he would be. Fung Sei tells him that he was followed when he dropped off the getaway car for Ah Jong. "Who wants to kill me?" Ah Jong demands. Fung Sei reminds him that he knows the rules and knows he can't tell. He asks Ah Jong why he didn't get away and Ah Jong tells him he didn't get his money yet. Ah Jong sets down his gun as Fung Sei starts to open his briefcase. Fung Sei grabs the gun and holds it to Ah Jong's head, which just makes Ah Jong laugh. Ah Jong opens the brief case and finds only blank stacks of paper. Fung Sei pulls the trigger and finds the gun isn't loaded. Ah Jong opens his hand and drops the bullets on the table, then pulls out another gun. Rather than shoot Fung Sei he shoots in another direction and we see a triad thug was sneaking up on them. Ah Jong walks around the apartment killing thugs that are now converging from every direction. He asks Fung Sei "Who wants to kill me?"
Fung Sei: If you hadn't compromised your identity, he wouldn't have needed to kill you.
Ah Jong: I'll repeat my question. Who's trying to kill me?
Fung Sei: [looks at gun in his face] You're not sure if there are any bullets left.
Ah Jong: Don't you remember? I always save the last bullet. Either to kill someone else or kill myself.
Fung Sei: Wong Hoi. Wong Dung's nephew. He wants you dead. He's the one who wanted you to kill his uncle. Did you really have one bullet left?
Ah Jong shows him as he leaves. Fung Sei thanks him for sparing his life.

Inspector Li and his partner Tsang (Kenneth Tsang) get to Ah Jong's empty apartment, due to the noise from the gunfire. They find bodies everywhere and a CD of Jenny's songs. Li realizes it's Ah Jong's place. Li Ying listens to the music and indentifies with Ah Jong. We see shots of the two of them alternate while Li sits in his chair and imagines the scene of Ah Jong killing intruders.

Ah Jong calls Jenny from the road and tells her he'll be there soon. Li Ying finds Jenny's apartment and sneaks in. Ah Jong enters at the same time and the two end up in a standoff each with a gun on the other. Jenny hears them and comes to check it out, although she can't see the guns. Ah Jong tells her that Li is a soccer buddy. Li Ying plays along and the two give each other fake nicknames. Ah Jong says that Li Ying was called "Small B." and he counters that Ah Jong was called "Shrimp head." Jenny finds this funny. She insists on pouring them some tea. During this time, Li Ying's partner has been berated by a downstairs neighbor who finally reveals she was paid to keep him busy. He runs up to the apartment.
Li Ying: You're going to lose this match.
Ah Jong: Really? You're the one who misses every time you're in front of the goal.
Ah Jong asks if he's always "this earnest." And he replies that he doesn't "take things lightly." Ah Jong says "Same with me." and Li remarks that he thinks they're alike in some ways.
Ah Jong: Are you trying to say we're both good at soccer? That seems unlikely.
Li Ying: Likely.
Li Ying's partner, Tsang finally gets the apartment through a window as Jenny brings in the tea. Tsang trips over the cat, alarming everyone. Ah Jong tells Jenny "entertain Small B."  as he runs to the window and takes the gun from Tsang. Jenny asks if another friend has stopped by. Ah Jong tells her "No. Just the garbage lady." Jenny places Li Ying's voice from the bar as Ah Jong exits the apartment. Li Ying chases but loses him. They head back up to see Jenny who has realized they were lying to her. Li Ying  tells her that he's a cop and that Ah Jong is the killer that blinded her.She gets angry and they try to calm her down. They ask her to help them catch Ah Jong, which will keep him from getting killed by the triads.

Wong has declared "I don't care how much it costs. i want him dead." He see his assassins gathered around. Fung Sei walks in on the meeting and again urges Wong to pay Ah Jong, as he won't stop until he's paid. Wong won't listen, and they walk together into a parking garage. We see that Ah Jong is in the same garage watching. Fung Sei offers to kneel before Wong if it will make him agree. Wong knocks Fung Sei down instead. Ah Jong ambushes Wong's car, killing everyone in it except Wong, who is only injured. Fung Sei chases after him in his own car and they stop on the road a ways away. Ah Jong tells him "If you still consider me a friend then blow me away with one shot!" He hands Fung Sei his own gun and adds "I don't want to see a friend kneeling in front of someone else begging to get me my money!"
Fung Sei: I may not be very involved these days, but I always come through on my promises. If I could kill you with one bullet, then I wouldn't have to kneel in front of people and beg. Of course I'm ashamed of myself!
Ah Jong: [throws his gun] The world has changed. You and I are no longer suited to the triad lifestyle. We're too nostalgic.
Fung Sei: Maybe we're the lucky ones. When the time comes to die, I don't want to leave without even one friend. My only regret is that I owe you what was promised.
Ah Jong: One can't think like that with friends. Otherwise, what are friends for? Right?
The two of them share a laugh.

Fung Sei brings Ah Jong to his house. Ah Jong calls Jenny, who tells him he has to meet her at the airport tonight as a doctor called and told her she needs to get there right away. Jenny has Li Ying there listening in to the call. Fung Sei asks him if he trusts her. He tells him "She's never lied to me." We see Jenny later at the airport waiting. Li Ying has surveillance all around. Li Ying is concerned when a large group of people stops near Jenny. Jenny suddenly has a change of heart and calls out to Ah Jong, telling him to run away.Li Ying sees a man who looks like Ah Jong who keeps his face partially obscured. The man approaches Jenny and then runs. Li Ying's men chase him, but find it's Fung Sei impersonating him, while Ah Jong escapes with Jenny onto a baggage conveyor belt. They question Fung Sei who claims he's a talent scout and also drunk. Li Ying tries to convince him that he wants to help Ah Jong, but he doesn't cooperate. Back at the police station, the chief takes Li Ying off the case and gives it to someone else, telling Li "I don't have confidence in you."

Back at Fung Sei's house Ah Jong and Jenny talk. She asks if he'll kill people again. He tells her "At first I thought I'd only kill bad people not good people, but it isn't that easy. I don't want to kill anyone again.I hope I can achieve that." Officer Tsang follows Fung Sei until one of the triad hit men drives up and shoots the officer in the neck and then starts shooting at Fung Sei who speeds off with them following. Tsang follows after them, tailing the hit men, who are tailing Fung Sei. He manages to force the hit men off the road, but gets his car stuck at the address marker for Fung Sei's house. He passes out there.

Fung Sei gets hoe and tells Ah Jong about the experts that are after him. He shows AH Jong his large collection of guns which he can use to hold them off. He tells Ah Jong that he's going to get the money and to meet at the church tonight. Ah Jong insists that he not go if it isn't possible, but Fung Sei insists. At the hospital, Li Ying visits Tsang, who gives him the address just before dying. The other officers arrive to question Tsang. Li Ying angrily brushes past them. The triad hitmen follow Li Ying who arrives at Fung Sei's house as Ah Jong is packing a duffel bag full of guns. In the house, Jenny asks why it's so dark. Ah Jong tells her it looks like it's going to rain even though it's a sunny day. Li Ying shows up and tells Ah Jong to freeze. Li Ying tells Ah Jong he has to arrest him to avenge his dead friend. Ah Jong tells him he won't let that happen and taunts him to just shoot him dead. Ah Jong notices one of the triad men outside and fires. Li Ying shoots Ah Jong in the arm and the two end up in a stand off again. Jenny finds a gun and points it toward Li Ying and demands he let them leave. She accidentally fires the gun although it doesn't hit him. The triad hit men storm the house and Ah Jong and Li Ying team up to fend them off. Li Ying agrees that they can discuss arrest after Jenny is safely out. Li Ying drives while Ah Jong shoots at the other cars arriving.

They pull over and Li Ying helps Ah Jong with his gunshot, cauterizing it with gunpowder. The two discuss their jobs. Li Ying tells Ah Jong "I believe in justice, but no one believes in me." Ah Jong tells him "Good people are usually misunderstood." Li Ying asks him who's behind it all, but Ah Jong insists that he can't tell him as it's against the rules.  They all head to the church to wait for Fung Sei. At the church, Jenny asks why there are no lights, even though there are candles everywhere. Ah Jong tells her it's a power outage. Li Ying asks if Ah Jong thinks Fung Sei will show up, and Ah Jong insists that he will.

We see Fung Sei going to meet with Wong again. He notices a briefcase full of money for their main hitman. He then grabs a gun from one of the triad men and starts shooting, injuring Wong. He puts the gun to Wong's head and he orders his men to stand down. However, when Fung Sei attempts to grab the briefcase, Wong hits him with his cane and starts beating him. He then shows off his bulletproof vest and tells Fung Sei he should've shot him in the head. They continue beating Fung Sei, as at the church Ah Jong and Li Ying discuss their lives, Ah Jong wishing he could do it over. Ah Jong manages to grab another gun and this time puts it in Wong's mouth. He grabs the briefcase and walks out with Wong and then drives away.

At the church Jenny has realized that her vision is gone by putting her fingers near candle flame. Ah Jong asks Li Ying to make sure that if he dies, he get Jenny his corneas, or else give her the money and get her on a plane. He agrees to help. A battered Fung Sei shows up at the church and gives Ah Jong the briefcase. He tells him "It's important to be able to settle matters for a friend." Ah Jong thanks him. We see other cars of triad goons arrive, this time including Wong himself, and the triad members burst in shooting Fung Sei. He says it's a shame he doesn't have his last bullet, and Ah Jong offers his, putting Fung Sei out of his misery. Li Ying and Ah Jong again team up to repel the attackers who are again coming in from every direction. Ah Jong is shot and injured while trying to protect Jenny and the triad men get in the church. When a priest escorts Jenny to safety they start fighting back again.  Ah Jong and Li Ying head outside finding even more triad forces. WOng finds Jenny and the priest, kills the priest and grabs Jenny. He demands that AH Jong throw away his gun. Li Ying grabs their top hitman and puts a gun to his head, offering an exchange. Wong declines by shooting the hit man himself.  Ah Jong tells Li Ying "I hope you're able to pull off what you promised me." and throws Li Ying the briefcase. Li Ying says "No problem. Don't forget you still have a friend to back you up." He shrugs to point out his back up pistol in his belt. Ah Jong and Li Ying drop their guns. Wong then shoots him in the gut. Ah Jong grabs Li Ying's back up and fires back. The two trade shots and Wong ends up putting out both of Ah Jong's eyes, leaving him in agony, while Wong runs. Li Ying checks on Ah Jong, but realizing there's nothing he can do, he chases Wong. Jenny and Ah Jong crawl towards each other on the ground but pass right by without meeting before Ah Jong dies. Wong runs for the now arriving police and volunteers to surrender. Li Ying watches this and recalls his conversations with Ah Jong. He shoots Wong while he has his hands up surrendering. The cops put their guns on Li Ying who drops to the ground once Wong is dead, muttering "Shrimp head."


Unknown said...

A lot of people cite this as Woo's masterpiece and in terms of themes and symbolism, it is arguably his richest but I still take HARD BOILED over THE KILLER any day of the week for sheer ambition and one insanely over-the-top choreographed action sequence after another. But this film is certainly right up there.

INDBrent said...

I can certainly see the case for "Hard Boiled" or "Bullet in the Head" as a better film. I think for me the biggest factor is seeing "The Killer" first. The other films feel more like a further examination of the place the Killer captured for me. No mistake about it, "Hard Boiled" is a great film.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those "if it's on, I have to watch it" movies. Very well writtent piece, Brent. The "double pistols" is a Woo staple. I remember once reading Fat saying his hands would shake at the end of a day of filming, because he'd be firing so many rounds. ~ Mark

INDBrent said...

Thank you jesrseystyle! Fat also had some trouble with the fist fight scenes as he is very much against violence. COuldn't tell from watching though!